DIE GEDANKEN SIND FREI A Meditation on the Free Mind and Free Religion in Hard Times

A Meditation on the Free Mind and Free Religion in Hard Times

James Ishmael Ford

21 April 2013

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


Greater love has on one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

This past week in Boston has been an exhausting testimony of frustration, fear, hatred, and who knows what other mysterious currents of the human heart leading to a spasm of violence, two bombs exploding on Boyleston Street at the end of the Marathon, a gunfight in Watertown, later an outright assassination, all this resulting among the dead a child, two young women, a policeman, as well as one of the bombers. A hundred and eighty people were wounded, some grievously, a dozen losing limbs. And now in custody, also badly wounded, a nineteen-year old boy.

As these events played out, particularly Friday, Jan and I were riveted to the television, familiar neighborhoods on the screen turned just shy of a war zone, the denouement of the whole sad event only a couple of blocks from Perkins School for the Blind, where Jan serves as the research librarian and would have been if the whole city hadn’t been locked down.

And, of course, of course, this sort of thing goes on nearly every day somewhere, I immediately think of Afghanistan, Syria and parts of Africa. And, of course, of course, that epicenter of violence near the Dead Sea where perpetrators and victims trade places in what feels an endless round of hurt and sorrow.

We’re not a week from April 24th, which marks that day in 1915 when some two hundred fifty community leaders and public intellectuals were caught up in mass arrests in Constantinople, beginning the horror history, if not every nation, would come to call the Armenian genocide. It would leave a million and a half people killed simply for their ethnicity. That word genocide was coined to speak to the horrors of Armenia and Germany, where a few decades later there was a concerted effort by the Nazis to murder every Jew they could, and succeeded in killing six million, as well as maybe as many as a million and a half Romani, plus a quarter of a million people with disabilities, as well as, well, no one really knows how many trade unionists, leftists and homosexual persons. But we can be sure many, many thousands.

Where is all this hatred birthed? And what can we do about it? Today let’s consider some of the causes, and what some of the cure might look like.

First, the usual suspects. Sometimes we find the source of this cruelty rising from religious ideology. Truthfully for too many religions, they come to dominate their culture and inquisitions follow, pretty much as day is followed by night. Sometimes the source of animus and cruelty comes from ethnic differences, while sometimes it arises out of a political struggle. The common thread to all of these, it seems to me, is that somehow an “other” is designated, and people with power act against that other. And with that evil follows like the day is followed by night.

Ultimately this is all deeply personal. Hatred and fear are intimate human feelings. I think of those events this past week, and I see the children and staff at Perkins in front of my face. And I notice the emotions I feel. Anxiety for the helpless and their helpers. And anger at those whose wars spill over and endangers the innocent, those who’ve already had enough trouble for a lifetime.

And out of this I want to defend, to protect. And with that to lash out, to hurt those who hurt others. My emotions crowd up together and it is hard to sort them out. Then out of this murkiness arises the greatest danger. It is where that sense of other emerges. It is a natural consequence of our human ability to sort things out. It is a critical aspect of our humanity to distinguish self and other. And, it is dangerous.

Once we have an “other,” too often we stop thinking. We’ve got lots of them, some are part of our individual hearts, sometimes our communal hearts. Black. White. Muslim. Woman. Man. Gay. Lesbian. There are reasons for these. Sometimes even real sources for these categories of other, though rarely as justifiable as we might feel. They are seductive. And they are dangerous.

And. What I find most interesting, most compelling is how people sometimes do not get caught up in the collective madness birthed in our sense of distinctions, and instead see deep and potentially transformative connections. What follows is like daybreak following the night.

For instance. In 1942 and 1943, the Nazis were fully engaged in their horrific program. Kurt Huber, a philosophy professor at the University of Munich and a network of his students formed the White Rose to publish and distribute pamphlets resisting the collective madness, the group think, the contraction into us against the other, instead calling for freedom of thought and action to open minds, to open hearts.

They were able to write and distribute five pamphlets denouncing Hitler and calling for liberty before their group was tracked down and arrested. The draft for a sixth pamphlet was smuggled out to the allies who dropped a million copies of the “manifesto of the students of Munich” all over Germany. Six, including Professor Huber, were guillotined, a seventh survived to 1945, and was liberated before her trial and certain execution was scheduled.

What I find particularly compelling is how guards and others who witnessed these young women and men at their trails and executions commented at great length at their dignity and grace in captivity, manifesting the humanity and common decency, they were witnessing for.

Twenty-four year old Hans Scholl’s last words, as the blade hung above his throat were “Long live freedom.” Hans’ sister Sophie, another White Rose conspirator stood outside the prison playing an old German folk song on her flute. “Die gedanken sind frie.” In our Unitarian Universalist hymnal the words call out to us, “Die gedanken sind frie. My thoughts freely flower. Die gedanken sind frie. My thoughts give me power.”

I find the free mind leads to the free heart, leads us to find the connections. And, more, I suggest. This is our way, our way of life, our spiritual path. And, more, I believe, with all my heart: it is our way through the hurt of life and all its many traps.

And, so, in a heartbeat, I wonder about the families of those two young men who committed the horror at the Boston marathon, and took that violence to Watertown, their father’s insistent denials and their uncle’s heartbreaking lament of family shame. And my heart breaks. And, then my heart surveys the families of the dead. And those wounded, with such terrible wounds. So, much sadness. It breaks my heart. And with that the lesson of the open mind, of the open heart: They are all of them, perpetrators and victims, ours. They are all of them, perpetrators and victims, us.

This is the deep truth proclaimed in this Meeting House. It is our way through the hurt. It is a way to something better. We are called to open our minds, not to shut them down. We didn’t invent this. We don’t own it. The free mind, the free heart is, well, free. But, we, here, are more clearly committed to this way of life than most any other gathered into a spiritual community. And for that I’m grateful, grateful beyond words.

And, then, of course, at some point we need to speak. And, I have. But, the words that most haunt me, that most pull at my heart, that speaks most deeply into this situation we find ourselves today, come from Germany.

I think of that flute soaring into the evening sky. And I think of those words that those barely more than children sang together as they worked an impossible conspiracy to open hearts and to challenge that relentless closing into self and other, haunt me.

My thoughts are free.

Die Gedanken sind frei.

Die Gedanken sind frei.

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